Published on 09.15.2021

Tourmaline: Activist. Mentor. Community Historian.

Tourmaline is a New York City-based historian, activist, artist and filmmaker. A member of the Black trans community, she’s passionate about sharing and celebrating the stories of her predecessors. As an activist and mentor, she works to make lasting change and to encourage others to live joyfully, confidently and authentically.

What was it like where you grew up?

I grew up in Roxbury, a historically Black part of Boston. I grew up in poverty, and I grew up with a sense of community and family. No one in the neighborhood had much money. We all figured out how to make it work. It was beautiful — lots of young people hanging out, a real sense of community richness. That's probably why that's so important to me today.

Did that play a role in your desire to become a community historian in New York?

Absolutely. The fun, the drama, the youthfulness and the joy that we found in the midst of a mess sparked me to figure out, who are people who came before? [Trans activist] Marsha P. Johnson was doing a similar thing in a different moment. Through her daily acts of resistance or joy, she lined up with her desires and made it happen. She was able to look at a landscape that didn't have the thing that she wanted, and dreamed up what it is that she wanted, whether it was a community space or a bail fund or modeling for Andy Warhol. That is definitely why I started writing about Marsha and others — the stories of our community.

What story are you working on telling and preserving now?

New York City used to have pleasure gardens where wealthy white people would go to spend time in nature. There were two specifically Black gardens in Manhattan that were made in this Edwardian, Victorian era. When I found that out, I fell in love with the notion of Black leisure, Black replenishment — not emphasizing struggle, but relaxation and joy. That started my new series “The Pleasure Garden.” The Met Museum acquired two self-portraits from that series. They're going to open in a show on November 6th.

“I fell in love with the notion of Black leisure, Black replenishment—not emphasizing struggle, but relaxation and joy.”

Your work recently premiered at the MTV Video Music Awards. What was that like?

Coming to New York in 1998, Lil Kim, Mary J. Blige, Bad Boy Records — in that moment, I was like, this is who I am. This is what I want to be doing. Their billboards in Times Square really kind of exemplified that. My video work “Pollinator In The Pleasure Garden” premiered on 44 screens at the VMAs and in Times Square. It was wild. It was a dream since childhood. 

You know, sometimes it's beautiful to paint with a small brush and sometimes it's beautiful to paint with a large brush, and I like having the range. I like sharing my work with five people at a community space and I like sharing my work with thousands of people at the VMAs or in Times Square. The message is we should be able to have it all.

What challenges have you faced in telling these stories from Black and queer history?

Historical erasure is something our community faces every day. What's so inspiring is that more and more people are riding this wave, looking at the past to see the stories that inspire us, and also sharing resources. There's a growing team of people saying, 'We matter, our history matters, and we're going to keep showing up and showing out no matter what.'

How do you show up and show out in your daily life?

Up until the 1970’s, if you were a trans person in New York City, you could be arrested and put in jail due to anti-cross-dressing laws. The afterlife of that is real. It’s real in the interactions we have on the street. It’s real in the ways that many of us have internalized what we can and can't wear. As I, little by little, replace those beliefs with other ones, I take more risks. I wear things that maybe I wouldn't have. I feel bolder, more confident. However we want to show up is powerful and beautiful, and it's a gift to anyone who's witnessing us.

'We matter, our history matters, and we're going to keep showing up and showing out no matter what.'

What role do you see confidence play in owning your style?

I love living in that legacy of taking up space. The best part of the Dockers® shoot was being outside my studio, crossing back and forth on the sidewalk, on the crosswalk, posing, taking up space, showing up, showing out. That's the power of us self-fashioning. That's the power of style, of exuding more, everyday, of who we are.

Probably in a different moment in my life, when I was less confident, I wouldn't have been so open to wearing tailored menswear and would have worried about being misgendered or something like that. And now, I was like, 'This is money. This is hot. I'm hot. Dockers®, put me on a billboard already!”

What advice would you give to future generations of Black and queer individuals?

I would like to continue to inspire myself and other people to connect with the biggest versions of themselves — the most powerful, abundant, beautiful versions. Wherever you feel powerful and confident in living your truth, that is an important place to do it. If you feel more comfortable taking selfies in your bedroom, that's fine. Pull a look in your bedroom. 

If you feel confident and comfortable walking around on the street, on the sidewalk, on the train, subway, bus — that's great too. A lot of pressure goes into being somewhere other than where you are. And I've come to realize that pressure is an obstacle to success, under this definition that I have, which is a connection to myself.

What’s next for you?

I would love to continue to make work that says, 'Hey, you too, little Tourmaline, or little whoever, can do this.' That's why I shoot a lot of my work on a phone, because it feels important to remind everyone that the difference between being an artist and not being an artist, being a Black artist and not being a Black artist, is just claiming that. It's just saying, 'My life is art. I have been sculpting the most beautiful sculpture through living my life.'

“My life is art. I have been sculpting the most beautiful sculpture through living my life.'